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Protesters blockade Tunisia phosphate mine, demand jobs

Protests one of first tests for new government of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, amid struggling economy

Tunisia's Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, left, President Beji Caid Essebsi (REUTERS/file photo)

Protesters have partly blocked Tunisia's phosphate production, a month after state-run Gafsa Phosphate (CPG) announced an agreement to hire new workers to end demonstrations that had disrupted output for months, an official said on Saturday.

The CPG protests are becoming one of the first tests for the new government of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who has said he would take a strong position against sit-ins that damaged the country's economy.

CPG said in September it would hire 2,800 new workers after protests over jobs disrupted output, depleted stocks and threatened to stop exports, which are a major source of income for the Tunisian government.

Ali Houchati, a CPG official, told Reuters unemployed graduates had re-started protests to demand they be included in the job scheme, halting production on Friday at the Metaloui unit, which produces more than half of CPG's output.

"Production and transport of phosphates has been totally halted since yesterday at the Metlaoui site because of demonstrations by dozens of unemployed" who stopped a bus carrying workers from entering the site, Ali Ouchetti, spokesman for CPG, told AFP.

Tunisia produced about 8.26 million tonnes of phosphate in 2010. But output dropped after its 2011 revolution. It produced 4 million tonnes last year and output for the first six months of 2016 was at 1.86 million tonnes, according to the energy ministry.

Chahed said in late August that in five years, Tunisia's phosphate production had fallen by 60 percent. In June, President Beji Caid Essebsi said that had cost the country $5bn.

Tunisia is battling high unemployment and has been hit by a spate of labour protests and also attacks by militants.

Protesters also prevented trucks carrying phosphate from leaving another site at Mdhilla, 15km to the south, where production had been halted for a week, Ouchetti added.

Similar protests in August prompted government intervention, and the CPG agreed to run a competition to hire hundreds of graduates.

The CPG, one of the world's top phosphate producers, is the biggest employer in Gafsa, one of Tunisia's poorest areas.

The region witnessed an uprising in 2008 that was bloodily repressed by the regime of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which was toppled by a revolution in 2011.

The government announced last week that British energy firm Petrofac would resume operations at a major gas plant that had been shut down since January by workers demanding permanent contracts.